Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ledbetter's journey should inspire jaded Americans

(Originally published 1/31/09)

A friend of mine once joked about beating the idealism out of me.

I'll admit that there are days when it could be done more easily than others. Idealism sometimes struggles in the harsh reality of politics.

But this week, it would have been tough.

Thursday morning, I watched on television as President Obama signed his first bill -– the Lilly Ledbetter Act -– into law.

We talked last fall about the bill, an equal pay measure designed to put the courts squarely in the corner of those whose employers have discriminated against them in pay. All three of my federal representatives opposed it; it might increase lawsuits against businesses, they said.

(This just in: Employers can avoid pay discrimination lawsuits by –- GASP! –- not discriminating against their workers.)

Lilly Ledbetter was a factory worker in Gadsden. She had put in nearly 20 years and was preparing to retire when someone tipped her off that she was making less than men in her position. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she should have sued when she was first discriminated against; it was just her bad luck that she didn't know about it until it was too late.

The new law fixes that. It extends the statute of limitations on discrimination claims by clarifying that each inequitable paycheck is a new incident.

The discrimination she suffered affected her salary, which then cost her in Social Security and pension benefits. She couldn't get what she had rightfully earned.

But she "decided that there was a principle at stake, something worth fighting for. So she set out on a journey that would ... lead to this bill which will help others get the justice she was denied," Obama said.

That principle? Equal pay for equal work.

Yes, this country might have just inaugurated its first African-American president. But women are still making only 79 cents on the dollar to men.

On Thursday, as Obama signed the bill that bears her name, Lilly Ledbetter stood over the president’s right shoulder. I thought about how she must have felt when she read that anonymous note stuffed into her locker at work, how her face must have flushed with embarrassment, then anger, as she came to the dark realization of what had happened to her over two decades of her life. I thought about how she must have spent agonizing nights pondering her work and doubting herself. I thought about the disappointment and disgust she must have felt when judges told her that justice has a deadline. And I thought about how easy it would have been for her to give up.

I thought about how, because of this grandmother from North Alabama, my three daughters won't have to face what she did.

I watched the president turn to embrace Lilly Ledbetter. I thought about how, for all its warts and failings and frustrations and scandals, the legislative system had worked for this ordinary American who had been wronged and turned to her government for help.

Yes, I am an idealist. And Thursday was a good day to be one.

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